Why Music?

Why Music?

On the “About” page of the new book blog I started, Great Books of Old Stream,  I spent some time thinking about why I read.  I asked myself, why is it important for people to read great books?  Also,  why do I continue to read challenging things as often as I can?  Here on my music blog, I was naturally led to ask myself a similar question, “Why Music?”.  That is almost a more difficult question for me to tackle, because I take music for granted.    I am like a fish trying to explain water, because for me music is everywhere and I am immersed in it.  Music making, music listening, and being engaged in musical activities is like breathing air.  I don’t remember a time in my life without music.  I imagine I was born in a hospital delivery room with something wonderful playing over the radio speakers, although due to the therapeutic effects of pain medicine, not even my mother remembers exactly which song.

“One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.”
― Bob Marley

i-love-music-quotes-6hotuf304I think this is a common phenomenon among musicians, one whereby music is ubiquitous in their lives, but articulating exactly why it is important is something of a challenge.  I can’t tell you why I compose, it is simply an inner compulsion.  I do it because I have to, it is who I am.  It matters not if no one listens, I compose anyway.  Much music is very emotionally expressive, but I don’t find an answer to my question “Why Music?” in the endless parade of empty platitudes, such as, “music gives a soul to the universe”, or “music heals the heart”, or “music is the language of the spirit”.  I don’t know where the soul-giving, heart-healing, spirit language is in the score, or when it might go on sale at Guitar Center.  Even an explanation of music as an “expression of the human”, falls short for those of us who have met some wonderfully talented musicians who were simply awful human beings.  The sublime beauty of the operas of Richard Wagner, for example, are the product of a man who was a despicable person.  I have to separate the music from the man, the art from the flawed human creator, in order to live with myself for enjoying it.

““And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche

Conductor Benjamin Zander has amazing energy and a wonderful sense of humor in his TED talk, “The transformative power of classical music” from 2008.  The talk is very engaging, and very powerful if you do what he suggests, and imagine someone you love who is gone, while you listen to the “shopping” piece.  I don’t think it is a complete answer to why music is important, but it is a great twenty minutes that demonstrates at least part of the answer.

“There are two means of refuge from the misery of life — music and cats.”
― Albert Schweitzer

Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein

Of all the things that music is said to do, what I most hope it has the power to do, is bring people together.  People need to come together now, more than ever.  The most powerful music I know about bringing together the Brotherhood of Man (forgiving the all-male tense, I mean all humankind), is the setting of “Ode to Joy” in the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth symphony.  Leonard Bernstein conducted a performance of the Ninth on December 25, 1989 in East Berlin as part of a celebration of the fall of the Berlin wall.  I found a video of some comments Lenny made about the “Ode to Joy”, recorded about fifteen years before that Berlin performance.  I am saddened by how current Bernstein’s comments sound today, forty years later, as he goes on a tangent about war, refugees and bloodshed.  I hope music does have the power to unite people, and like Bernstein, I pray that we all grow into something worthy of being called the human race.

Leonard Bernstein talking about “Ode to Joy”

Joy, beautiful spark of divinity,
Daughter from Elysium,
We enter, drunk with fire,
Heavenly, thy sanctuary!
Your magics join again
What custom strictly divided;
All people become brothers,
Where your gentle wing abides.

10,000 people singing in  the choral finale of Beethoven’s Ninth

Keith Emerson (1944-2016)

Keith Emerson (1944-2016)

keith-emerson-1Sadly, I learned that keyboardist and composer Keith Emerson died this past week from what the coroner has determined was a self-inflicted gunshot wound.  He was suffering from depression and anxiety mainly over some nerve damage in his hands hampering his ability to play keyboards.  It seems that depression got the best of him and he committed suicide.  He was 71 years old.

Emerson lake and palmerEmerson was part of the progressive rock super-group named Emerson, Lake and Palmer.  I am regrettably a very latecomer to the ELP party.  The band formed in London in 1970, with Keith Emerson on keyboards, Greg Lake on bass and vocals, and all sorts of percussion played by Carl Palmer.  I really don’t know what rock I have been living under, but I had only heard a few of the songs of ELP that would play on the classic rock radio stations.  Things like “Lucky Man” from their 1970 debut album Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and “From the Beginning” from the 1972 album “Trilogy”.

Emerson, Lake and Palmer, “Lucky Man”

Emerson, Lake and Palmer, “From the Beginning”

efp284Clearly you could throw a rock out your front window and hit someone who knows more of the history of Emerson, Lake and Palmer than I do.  I feel shortchanged that I only knew the shorter radio-friendly tunes.   I have for so long missed out on some of the longer, more adventurous tracks this group recorded.  Keith Emerson was a very technically accomplished keyboard player, and a big fan of all sorts of music of all genres.  He played piano, early Moog synthesizers, Hammond organs and made full use of all sorts of cutting edge keyboard technology available to him.  With the instant gratification of streaming music on Spotify, I have been able to explore so much more of the output of ELP.  The 1971 live album version of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” was a find for me to write about on this blog a year ago.  Only 11 days before Emerson’s death I was writing about Piano Concerto No. 1, Opus 28 (1961) by the Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera and found the ELP version of the fourth movement on their 1973 album Brain Salad Surgery under the title “Toccata”.

Emerson, Lake and Palmer,  “Pictures at an Exhibition”

Emerson, Lake and Palmer, “Toccata”

The more listening I do, the more surprises and gems I uncover.  Clearly those three listened to everything they could.  There are versions of things as widely varied as “Hoedown” from Aaron Copland’s Rodeo, to the Scott Joplin “Maple Leaf Rag”, quotes from J.S Bach and honky-tonk blues piano.  I even caught a quote of the Dizzy Gillespie bebop tune “Salt Peanuts” in the middle of Emerson’s keyboard solo on “Tiger in a Spotlight” from Works Volume 2 (1977).

Emerson, Lake and Palmer, “Tiger in a Spotlight”

Depression is a horrible disease, a truly painful experience for anyone who suffers from it.  If you, or someone you love, seem to have symptoms of depression, stop fooling around with my humble attempts at a blog and get help immediately.  There are so many more treatment options, pharmacological and otherwise, than there were even 15 years ago.  Seek some sort of therapy and treatment before it progresses to suicidal thoughts.  Suicide is a tragedy for both the person we lose and all the people in their life, left behind to grieve.  

Emerson, Lake and Palmer, “Show Me The Way to Go Home”

Two For The Price Of One

Two For The Price Of One

Double_Take_(album)Two of my absolute favorite jazz trumpet players of all time are Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw.  I can listen to them for hours on end and never get tired of their playing.  In 1985, they teamed up for an album on the Blue Note label entitled Double Take. If I had a nickel for every time I have listened to that album, I would have a lot of nickels for sure.  Freddie plays trumpet and flugelhorn, while Woody plays trumpet on the entire album.  Detroit native Kenny Garrett plays alto saxophone and flute, and the rhythm section on the record is the great Mulgrew Miller on piano, Carl Allen on drums and Cecil McBee on bass.  

In 1985 the technology of the recording industry was in a state of flux.  New albums were being released both on vinyl records and cassette tapes, and the manufacturing of compact discs was in its infancy.  Ronald Reagan was President of the United States, and there was no such thing as Google.  Vinyl records were beginning their exit from the commercial market, and some great music could be purchased at a bargain price on vinyl.  That is how I got my first copy of Double Take.  

Hubbard and ShawThe album is remarkable because the two great musicians don’t compete with each other, but work collaboratively and in the most satisfying musical way.  So many times when you get a couple of trumpet players together, things become a competition of flashy licks and high note spectacles where the musicality suffers.  Freddie and Woody never stop playing ideas, great, interesting musical ideas, and the result is a great record.  They pay respect to some of the great trumpet players that have come before them, playing tunes on the album composed by Clifford Brown, Fats Navarro, Kenny Dorham and Lee Morgan.  I think I wore out a needle on my turntable just playing the Clifford Brown tune “Sandu” over and over.

“Sandu”, Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw, Double Take

The_Eternal_TriangleTwo years later, in 1987, Blue Note saw fit to record the two trumpeters again, and this time the resulting album was named The Eternal Triangle.  It featured the same lineup of players, with Ray Drummond substituting on bass.  This time the name of the album came from a tune written by Sonny Stitt, which Freddie and Woody play on the record. Again, I purchased the album on vinyl record, and listened to it repeatedly.  I made bootleg copies of each album onto cassette tape and listened to them in the car.  I listened to them on a Sony Walkman, played them on my tower speakers attached to the hi-fi, and never got tired of the bluesy, straight-ahead, swinging jazz sound.  

“The Eternal Triangle”, Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw, The Eternal Triangle

Sadly, I missed getting the albums on compact disc when they were released together as The Complete Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw Sessions in 1995.  For a long time, the albums were just out of print and unavailable.  When my music collection moved to a computer hard drive of digital files, these two albums were left behind for a time.  I have to say it left a big hole in my collection of jazz albums, but eventually fortune smiled and saw fit to release them on iTunes and on Amazon Music.  I was very happy to welcome them to my digital collection.  The albums are also available on Spotify, and still, I have found I never get tired of listening to them.  Now if anyone wants a used copy of the original Star Wars Trilogy on VHS tape or DVD, please contact me.  I skipped the Blu-Ray versions, but fear I will soon be sucked into owning digital movie copies.  How many more times do I have to buy these things?

Double Take on Spotify
The Eternal Triangle on Spotify